Before Star Wars, serious science fiction survived on the allegorical. Take a typical situation, instill it with some sort of out of this world premise, and watch as humanity races toward its own prophetic self-destruction. Children of Men did it with infertility. Soylent Green offered up environmental catastrophe, food shortages, and roundabout cannibalism. And now comes Blindness, offering the title affliction as yet another way of undermining the social order and illustrating the standard dystopic notions of power corrupting basic moral principles. One expects more from City of God/The Constant Gardener filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, and the source material (from Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago). Sadly, what we wind up with is a puerile, preachy mess.
In a nameless metropolis, random citizens begin to go blind. The government’s reaction is swift and uncompromising. While scientists gather to investigate the cause, the afflicted are rounded up and placed in an abandoned asylum. There, they must fend for themselves, creating their own sense of order and means of survival. In Ward One, an optometrist and his wife find themselves caring for a ragtag group of individuals. They have a secret from the others, however. She can still see. As civility devolves into chaos, the patients in Ward Three, led by a power mad bartender, begin demanding servitude from the others. At first, it’s financial. Soon, it’s sexual. As anarchy reigns, it is up to the only person with sight to strategize a way out of this living Hell. If she can’t there may be no hope for humanity after all.
Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Gael García Bernal, Danny Glover, Alice Braga
(Miramax; US theatrical: 3 Oct 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 28 Nov 2008 (General release); 2007)
There is a precise moment when Blindness goes wonky, a single sequence that shows how unrealistic Meirelles plans on playing with this metaphoric material. As the asylum slowly fills up, the director dissolves between a shot of a scruffy hallway, and a corridor riddled with urine, feces, and other types of human waste. It’s the before and after, the shocker that provides the first indication that this movie is not going to pussyfoot around the realities of the civilized losing their grip on the basics of being people. As unnamed characters wander in and through their own filth, the notion that all sense of hygiene and propriety would be lost is sledge-hammered over our head relentlessly. By the time a fat lady is shown lounging, pimply body bereft of a single stitch of clothing, we’re supposed to suspect the worse. This is how the world ends - in a river of offal.
And that’s exactly what Blindness delivers - 30 minutes of basic bookend apocalypse followed by a middle 90 of nauseating repugnance. Coping skills cranked down to zero and left to rot by a republic hellbent on playing concentration camp, all allusions are tossed aside for endless sequences of sleaze and self pity. Julianne Moore, relegated to a saint in sighted garb, does all the dimensional duty here, while cast mate Mark Ruffalo (as her eye doctor husband) gets to feel severely sorry for himself. Both Meirelles and author Saramago have stated that the title illness is not meant to be taken literally. Instead, thanks to its described milky whiteness, it’s supposed to suggest the loss of detail and definition, not a plunge into total darkness.
Yet that’s exactly what this movie does, time and time again. Desaturating the image to suggest the sterility of contemporary life as San Paolo steps in for Anywhere Earth, our director begins things with a criminal taking advantage of our first victim. Soon, a hooker is humiliated as her nakedness is ignored by those looking down on her profession. By the time we get to the loony bin, and Gael García Bernal has turned into Jack from Lord of the Flies, everything is dim and grimy. Even the mass rape scene, with the ward women submitting in return for promised food, is photographed in deep shadow - perhaps for ratings reasons, or to heighten the imagined horrors in the mind’s eye. Meirelles clearly wants the audience to experience what his characters are going through. Unlike the controlled artistry of Julian Schnabel’s similarly styled The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, however, Blindness has no rationale for its scattered stylistic approach.
Indeed, the entire film reeks of the illogical. No one ever comes to the detainees’ defense. Their quarantine might as well be a human landfill. The rest of the world disappears so rapidly that you wonder why some nation didn’t just nuke everyone else as a precaution. When they finally escape, our refugees face little threat from the outside mayhem, as if only in the closed confines of their camp would power mad people try and control everyone else. And let’s not even discuss the moment when our heroine and her husband discover their home - clean, untouched, and capable of a certain level of creature comforts. You can tell Saramago had a lesson to teach with this material. Blindness may have been a screed against finding meaning through your eyes only. But Meirelles messes it up so badly, we can’t support the sophism.
In truth, it all becomes a matter of acceptance. There will be those who find this film as insightful about the human condition (and its easy of corruptibility) as anything since the aforementioned William Golding masterpiece. Others will sniff out its implausible pretensions and grow aggravated quickly. Perhaps a more subtle hand would have helped sell this literal lesson in the blind leading the blind. Maybe no adaptation could bring to life what Saramago suggested on the page. Whatever it is, Blindness cannot succeed as either entertainment or epiphany. Instead, it’s an unpleasant experience magnified by the arrogance inherent in its sense of self-importance. Currently, there is controversy over the depiction of the sightless in this film. Those who dismiss the claims forget one thing - the most reprehensible character in the entire third ward is someone who was actually born blind. That they ‘overlook’ such symbolism is par for this movie’s preachy, distasteful course.